It’s no secret I love Mexico and Mexico City is where I fell in love with this beautiful country. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit several times over the years and the city always surprises me. You could spend a lifetime exploring it and never see everything there is to see. So, whether it’s your first visit or your tenth, I’ve come up with a few must do’s in Mexico City. Especially if you are a first time visitor. But be warned; you might just fall in love too.
Must do #1: Ride the Turibus
You might think riding the bright red doubledecker Turibus is just too touristy but let’s face it, you are a tourist and Mexico City is large. 21 million people large. Riding the bus allows you to see more or the city than you would just walking around.
The Turibus has different routes or tours to choose from. Simply pick the one you are most interested in. My favorite one is the Historic Center route that takes you through the Zocalo and gives you the opportunity to see all the monuments and fountains on the Reforma. The best part is you can hop on and off at different attractions on the route if you want – or just stay on. The choice is yours.
You can also take the Historic Center route at night for a totally different perspective from the day tour. All the monuments and fountains on the Reforma are lit up and really beautiful.
For a little more excitement, the Turibus also offers themed tours. There’s a Lucha Libre route that includes a visit to an actual lucha libre fight. Or if cantinas and bars are your thing, they offer a tour of some of the most famous drinking establishments in the city.
Must Do #2: Paseo de la Reforma
La Reforma is one of Mexico City’s most famous streets. This busy road, was designed after the wide boulevards found in Europe and passes through the city center. It was initially just for members of the royal court to get to the emperor’s castle. But in 1867, it opened to the public and as Mexico City grew, businesses and neighborhoods were built around it.
Now, it’s more than just a way to get around, the Reforma is lined with plenty of green spaces and parks that invite you to sit awhile. Wide pedestrian medians give the public plenty of room for a “paseo” or strolling around. One of the Reforma’s best features are the roundabouts – or glorietas in Spanish – that honor famous Mexican heroes and historical events.
La Reforma is so popular with Chilangos – or people from Mexico City – on Sundays the street is closed to motorized vehicles from 8am to 2pm.
Must do #3: El Zocalo
Mexico City has some gorgeous neighborhoods – Polanco, Roma and Condessa – to name a few. But the true heart of Mexico City is the Historic Center with El Zocalo or main square. It’s the largest square in Mexico and third largest in the world. The Zocalo has even been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since the Zocalo is so large, it’s a main gathering place for just about anything that goes on in Mexico City. From art and food festivals to gardens and even protests at times, there’s always something happening.
Must Do #4: Metropolitan Cathedral
In the Zocalo, you’ll find the detailed and ornate Metropolitan Cathedral – number four on the things to do in Mexico City list. The original cathedral dates back to 1573, and other sections were added in subsequent years. With twenty five bells, sixteen chapels and two of the biggest organs in the Americas, it’s an amazing church. Due to the fact that Mexico City was built on a lake, it’s also on the list of 100 most endangered sites because of sinking in the area.
You can enter the cathedral but just remember it is an operational church so dress accordingly and be respectful of the people worshiping or praying. While the Cathedral and the Zocolo are definite must do’s, it’s what’s under the Zocalo that brings us to number five on my list.
Must do #5: El Templo Mayor
Long before Mexico City as we know it was built, the city was called Tenochtitlan and was home to the ruling Aztecs or the Mexica people. When the city was conquered by the Cortes and the Spaniards in 1519, the Templo Mayor, their main temple for worship, was ransacked and torn down. Wanting to erase the evidence of the Aztecs, the Spanish colonizers, built over these Aztec structures.
While the existence of the temples were never totally forgotten and from time to time, artifacts were found, excavation of the area just wasn’t a priority. However, in the late 70’s, the Mexican electric company unearthed a large disc from the 15th century. That discovery caught the attention of the right people and excavation work was started.
To date, they’ve found thousands of objects and the work is still ongoing. The indoor covered Templo Mayor Museum, near the ruins, houses some of those artifacts. The museum is open daily for a small fee. There’s also a series of boardwalks outside that connects the ruins that can be explored for free. The disc that was found in the 70’s is on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.
It’s surreal to see the Aztec ruins in the middle of this city, knowing that you are looking at exactly the same thing the Spaniards saw when they came to conquer Mexico City.
Must do #6: Plaza Garibaldi
While Mexico is credited with the origin of many music genres, no doubt mariachi is it’s most famous. To experience authentic mariachi music in Mexico City, Plaza Garibaldi is the place to go. Mariachi bands from all over Mexico travel to Mexico City just to sing in this plaza. It’s a huge honor.
Plaza Garibaldi is located near the Historic Center and just a short walk from the Zocalo. Though, it’s open all day and night, the real fun and festive atmosphere doesn’t start until after the sun goes down. There are cantinas, restaurants and street food to enjoy, as well as some murals featuring famous Mexican singers.
If you’ve always wanted to be serenaded by a mariachi but didn’t know any songs besides La Cucaracha and La Bamba, I’ve got you covered. Here’s a list of a few of my favorite Mexican classics. They’re even easy to pronounce if you don’t speak Spanish.
- Mexico Lindo y Querido
- Mujeres Divinas
- El Rey
- El Ultimo Beso
- Volver Volver
Must Do #7: Eat Churros
You can eat churros in a lot of places but there’s something extra special about eating churros in a churreria that’s has been around since 1935 and is as cute as El Moro.
El Moro is the creation of a Spaniard living in Mexico, who longed for the churros of his hometown. He wanted them so much, he started his own restaurant and named it after the Arabic man – or Moor – who made the churros he loved so much back in Spain.
If you’ve never eaten churros, they are pretty simple. Flour, water and salt. But once they fried and rolled in sugar they are anything but basic. Crispy on the outside but dense and chewy on the inside. They are kind of addictive. And if that isn’t enough, El Moro also serves eight different hot chocolates for sipping and dipping.
El Moro has five locations, open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. So when the craving hits in the middle of the night, there’s no excuse to not go.
Must do #8: Museo Soumaya
If you are that person who doesn’t usually visit museums, you might want to rethink that when you visit Mexico City. That’s because there are approximately one hundred and fifty museums in the city. With that many to to choose from, finding something you’re interested in should be easy..
Museo Soumaya located in Polanco is one of my favorites . Even the exterior is a work of art. Six stories tall and covered in 16,000 aluminum tiles – it’s a photographer’s dream. It’s tempting to just take photos for and not go inside but you would miss out on some wonderful works of art.
There are pieces of art from Monet, Renoir, Degas, Rivera and Van Gogh- just to name a few. Besides sculptures, lots of real gold and silver items, the museum has almost an entire floor devoted just to money – old coins, medals and banknotes.
Museo Soumaya also has temporary exhibits and shows. When I was there, they were presenting an interactive show featuring different types of dance, with elaborate costumes and fun music. Best of all, it’s free to enter.
Other museums that are must do’s in Mexico City:
Must do #9: El Torre LatinoAmericana
The Latin American Tower is one of the world’s first skyscrapers ever built in an area like Mexico City prone to earthquakes. And at one time, it was the tallest building in Mexico City. While it no longer has that distinction, it’s still a tall building and worth a visit for some of the best views in the city. Plus it’s a great place to get an aerial view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
At forty-four stories high, there is a platform for viewing on the top floor and on the thirty seventh floor, and also a restaurant and bar. You can also learn about the history of the tower in two museums on the premises. The building is open every day from 9am to 10pm. There is a fee to enter but if you want to have a drink in the bar – admission is free.
Must Do #10: Eat Street Food
A visit to Mexico City wouldn’t be complete without trying some of the delicious street food. The selling of street food actually dates back to pre-Hispanic times. Since Mexico City is a city in constant motion with people working and commuting day or night – street food is Mexico City’s answer to fast food. You’ll find stands all over the city and you can get just anything you want.
If you’ve never tried street food before or are from somewhere where street food isn’t popular, you might think that food cooked outside on the street is unsanitary. But this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, street food vendors in Mexico City are required to be licensed and maintain health codes.
If you still unsure – here are a few tips for a positive street food experience. First, look for places that are busy with a lot of people. Do they look like locals? Locals are a always a good indication if something is good. Second, start slow. Don’t get to Mexico City and go crazy and eat a bunch of street food. Give you body – and belly – time to adjust. Especially if it’s your first time here. Also, start with something you are familiar with. You can never go wrong with tacos.
Must Do #11: Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is probably one of the most recognized and photographed buildings in all of Mexico City. Built in 1932, the building itself is a work of art. It serves as cultural center offering concerts and other events.
One of the longest running shows they feature is the Ballet Folklorico. The ballet presents the history of Mexico through dance and costumes. It’s a stunning show and teaches so much about Mexican history and culture.
Southerner Says: while you are at Bellas Artes, check out Alameda Central, the oldest public park in the Americas.
Must Do #12: La Casa de Azulejos
Mexico City is full of amazing old buildings. Another one of those buildings that should be on your list of must do’s in Mexico City list is La Casa de Azulejos or “house of tiles”. The entire exterior is covered in amazing blue and white tiles – or azulejos – from the Mexican state of Puebla. The building was once a private residence but it’s now owned by Grupo Sanborns, a popular Mexican department store who bought building, restored it, and added a restaurant. It now their flagship store.
Inside and out, the house is incredible. It’s full of art, frescoes and gorgeous tiles everywhere. In the main dining room of the restaurant, you can dine under stained glass in what once was the courtyard. For those that want to keep it a little more casual, there’s also counter service in a smaller dining room that offers the same delicious food. In either dining room, the food is served on their signature blue and white china. Not sure what to order? The Enchiladas Suizas are to die for.
I know a lot of people who think those buses are silly but I think it’s great. You can really see a lot of the city that you might not see otherwise. At some point you just get tired of walking too!