I fell in love with Mexico City when I was fifteen. It was a high school Spanish class field trip and it must have been destiny because it wasn’t even my school’s field trip. A neighboring school had the trip planned and since I had friends that were going, when someone dropped out, I was invited. Thank you to whoever that was. Till this day, I can’t believe my parents let me go. I didn’t speak any Spanish, I had never been out of the country and I had only flown once. And it was for longer than a weekend in Mexico City. To say my mom was worried is an understatement. But I went.
Visiting Mexico City Left it’s Marks on Me
I had no idea how that one trip would affect me. As the late Anthony Bourdain said “travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however slow. And in return, life and travel, leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks, on your body or on your heart, are beautiful. Often though, they hurt”.
As a girl raised in the south in the seventies, I’d never seen a Mexican. Let alone millions of them. Mexico City is pretty famous for how big it is. Flying in, I could see the houses stacked up like Jenga blocks on the mountains that surround the city. The city is also known for it’s smog but it must have been pretty clear that day because the houses seemed to stretch on forever.
Something else that stayed with me long after I left, was the fact that for so many houses, there were a lot of people that didn’t have one to call their own. Seeing homeless people living on the streets, especially women and children, begging for help, made a lasting impact on my fifteen year old heart. My family wasn’t rich but we were comfortable. After seeing people struggling, I had a newfound gratefulness for the privileges that before this trip, I didn’t even realize I had.
Even More Marks
That trip was also the reason I decided to learn Spanish. All it took was getting separated from half the class and the teachers – the only real Spanish speakers in the group – on Mexico City’s notorious Metro train. The train is known for the crowds and the fast closing doors. The look on the faces of the teachers, as the six of us that got on, pulled away, without them, is something I’ll never forget. How we made it back to where we needed to be, I’ll never know. Sheer luck. Then and there I vowed to learn Spanish.
Other experiences that left marks were visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacan and seeing the folkloric ballet at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I began to think more about the indigenous people, what happened to them and who caused it. To this day, I remember everything about that trip so clearly. Even smells and how the air felt different. I don’t know if I left my mark on Mexico City but it definitely left it’s mark on me.
Mexico City is a city with many names – CDMX, Distrito Federal, el DF and Chilangolandia, just to name just a few. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s one of the most fascinating, complex and overwhelming cities I’ve been to.
I’ve been back a few times since that first trip. Even though now there are hipper neighborhoods – I’ve stayed in them too – I still love spending time in the older historical part of the city. It would take years to discover all the things there are to see and do in this giant city but you can spend a layover of a long weekend in Mexico City, here’s a few suggestions to get you started.
Where to Stay in Mexico City
Mexico City has plenty of hotels for every budget. But if you are going old school and authentic for your weekend in Mexico City, choose a hotel in the center, near the Zocalo. Hotel Catedral is my favorite for a mid range budget and it’s in a great location. It’s convenient enough to the action of the Zocalo but tucked far enough away to avoid some of the crowds.
Even though Hotel Catedral is an older hotel, it’s been updated. Street facing rooms have small balconies and the ones in the rear have views of the tops of the cathedral and buildings around the Zocalo. The bathroom is big and has a bathtub. A complimentary breakfast is even included with the room. And breakfast in Mexico is not your usual waffles and fake eggs you get in the states. I’m talking a full blown breakfast with real eggs and chilaquiles. If you don’t speak Spanish, don’t worry about it. The hotel has English speaking staff and a concierge.
Old School Weekend in Mexico City
The best way to get to know an city is by walking. That’s even more so the case in Mexico City. Around every corner and on every street, there’s something to discover. A good way to start your Mexico City weekend, is by taking a free guided walking tour of the historic center. A tour last about two hours and is available in Spanish and English. The tour itself is free but there is a guide so don’t forget to tip.
If you are like me and not really into group tours, it’s easy to create your own walking tour in Google maps. The historic center encompasses a fairly compact small area so it’s easy to make a plan. You can also use my Must Do’s in Mexico City list to give you some ideas. I’ve also provided a map at the end of this article.
In the Zocalo, the biggest attraction is the Metropolitan Cathedral, so go here first. It’s the oldest and largest cathedral in Latin America. You’ll notice the different styles of architecture and how the building seems to be a little off kilter. That’s because Mexico City was built on a lake and gradually sinks a little bit every year.
Southerner Says: Remember to dress appropriately for the church
From the Cathedral, move on to the Templo Mayor, the site of Ancient Aztec runins. When the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlan, as the city was known back then, they wanted to erase all traces of the Aztecs, so they built everything on top of the Aztec city. Historians knew this but didn’t really do anything about about it until in the 1970’s, when some workers made a rather large discovery. Since then they have been excavating the area. Now visitors can see the ruins via a series of walkways through the ruins and also visit a museum.
Breakfast + Lunch
If you arrived early or didn’t have breakfast at your hotel, there are plenty of places around the Zocalo to help with that. Street food carts and stands are everywhere. You have to give them a try for a true Mexico City experience. You can find just about anything, anytime of the day. And you can never go wrong with tacos. However, start slow. Don’t overdo it. Especially on your first day while you are acclimating to a new country and a higher elevation.
Afternoon in the Historic Center
For the afternoon, while you’re still in the historic center, visit the nearby National Palace. The physical site and land of the palace has been the place for rulers since the Aztecs. The museum in the Palace is filled with art and frescoes by Mexican painter Diego Rivera. Don’t miss the famous balcony and bell that’s used by the Mexican president every September 15th to commemorate Mexico’s call to war and rebellion against Spain.
After the palace, head west on Calle 16 de Septiembre, where you’ll pass one of the most beautiful hotels in the city, Gran Hotel de Cuidad Mexico. Have a peek at it’s amazing ceilings and architecture that have been featured in movies and television. You don’t have to stay long but it’s something to see.
Where to Eat Dinner
Continue west on 16 de Septiembre until you get to Lazaro Cardenas and head north to la Casa de Azulejos. Azulejo means tile in Spanish. It’s called the House of Tiles because the exterior is made of tiles from the Mexican state of Puebla. The house was once a private home but has since been purchased by Grupo Sanborns, which is a chain of Mexican department stores.
If you are ready for dinner, and want a full sit down dining experience, the La Casa de Azulejos has a main dining in the converted courtyard. You won’t be eating outside though, The dining room is now covered with gorgeous stained glass. For a faster experience or if you happen to be dining solo, there is also counter service. But don’t worry. The food is the same delicious food as the main dining room and they still serve it on their signature blue and white china.
If you aren’t quite ready for dinner yet but want a little something, walk over a couple of blocks to La Opera, one of the oldest bars in the city. Opened by two French brothers in 1876, the famous of Mexico City have been dining and drinking there for years. Even Pacho Villa was a loyal customer and supposedly there’s a bullet hole to prove it.
When ordering a drink in Mexico City, it’s customary to be serve una botana, or a bite of something to eat. Like an appetizer. What qualifies as a botana varies from place to place. The last time I was at La Opera, it was refried beans with chips.
The bar at La Opera is a pleasant place to sit and have a rest to recharge.
After a day of walking around, you’re probably ready to get off your feet for awhile. The remedy for that is to take a ride on the doubledecker Turibus. It’s a fantastic way to see more of the city and give your feet a rest. Seeing the city lit up at night also gives you a totally different perspective too. There are several routes you can choose from, but I recommend a route that includes La Reforma, Mexico City’s major road through the city so you can see the monuments and statues that line it at night.
If you skipped La Opera earlier and still want something to do after the Turibus, Zinco Jazz Club is a cozy place for a nightcap. Located in an old bank, Zinco is really more speakeasy than club. Tucked away behind an unassuming door that you’d never even think would lead to some place so cool. After you enter, head down some steps into what was once the vault of the bank.
The cocktails were interesting and I ordered a mezcalini, made with mexcal and tamarind. Smoky and sweet, it was perfect for this cozy venue. Reservations are recommended especially on a Friday or Saturday night. There’s no cover charge unless there’s a special event or band. Check their website for the musical lineup.
On day 2, there’s still plenty to do in the historic center but if you would like to include something outside the city on your old school weekend in Mexico City, then head about 25 miles to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. Located in the state of Mexico, Teotihuacan tops my list of things to see when visiting Mexico City.
The pyramids of Teotihuacan are one of the most architecturally significant finds in Mexico. It is the largest pre-Columbian city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site has many structures and smaller pyramids but the star is the stunning Pyramid of the Sun, the largest of the structures found at Teotihuacan. It’s the third largest pyramid in the world!
On my first trip to Mexico City, there was nothing but the pyramids in the area. A lot has changed in recent years. More tourists means more attractions and more things to do around the site. Personally I don’t think it necessary to add anything to such a amazing place but visitors have the opportunity to see the pyramids on a hot air balloon tour and an evening light show with dinner.
What Else To Do Near Teotihuacan
Nearby the pyramids is the small town of San Juan Teotihuacan. The town has plenty shopping and makes a great stop for lunch or dinner. Another restaurant close to the pyramids that I recommend is La Gruta. Gruta in Spanish means grotto or cave. The restaurant in a cave. One of the most unique dining experiences I’ve ever had.
If you decide to include Teotihuacan in your old school weekend in Mexico itinerary, you can get there by bus, tour or even Uber. Of course, if you have a car, you can also drive. There is parking on site. To go by bus, check bus schedules by downloading the Rome 2 Rio app to get up to date info. It’s one of the 5 essential apps I use when I travel to Mexico. You could also book a tour ahead of time via Viator.com. Seeing the ruins can be done as a half day excursion if you leave early but I recommend planning an all day outing. The site is large and involves a lot of walking so make sure you wear comfortable shoes.
Night in the Historic Center
After a long day and a lot of walking at Teotihuacan, there are plenty of places close by the hotel to have dinner. Besides the places I recommended for the first night, there are some other historic places you don’t want to miss.
Just a few blocks from the Zocalo, Cafe de Tacuba serves up traditional Mexican food. It’s a beautiful space and has been serving delicious food since 1912. You can’t go wrong with a nice relaxing dinner there.
Near Cafe de Tacuba is Mirador Torre Latinoamerica. The torre or tower used to be the tallest building in Mexico City. It’s not now now but it’s still one of the best places for views. Visitors can buy tickets to the viewing platform on the 44th floor. However, there’s a restaurant on the 41st floor and a bar on the 40th and guest can dine and drink in either without a ticket. Call for reservations.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
You can’t have a old school weekend in Mexico City without seeing the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In fact, you’ve probably seen photos of it online or on Instagram. Not only is it stunning on the outside, the inside is pretty amazing too.
Ayer nos compartiste tus fotos y por eso hoy queremos mostrarlas al mundo; gracias por ser la parte más importante de nuestro recinto. En el Palacio de Bellas Artes te extrañamos.— PalaciodeBellasArtes (@PalacioOficial) August 20, 2020
Collage armado por @Tona_God pic.twitter.com/KRalLzGrCu
Featuring Diego Rivera art, seasonal events and programs, the Palace of Fine Arts serves as an art and cultural center in Mexico City. One of the longest running shows there is the Ballet Folklorico (currently on hiatus because of the pandemic). It’s a beautifully production about the history and the people of Mexico. The exotic costumes and dances are amazing. Seeing it would be a wonderful way to end your second day in Mexico City. Especially after visiting the pyramids.
Old School Weekend in Mexico Add-Ons
If you find yourself in Mexico City for more than a weekend, some other places I recommend:
- Day 3 – Chapultepec Park and the Museum of Anthropology. They are both in the Condessa neighborhood so you could combine them and make a day of it. Chapultepec Park is an absolute must do for families with children.
- Day 4 – visit Museo Soumaya and spend some time in the Polanco neighborhood
- Day 5 – explore the Coyoacan neighborhood and Frida Kahlo’s Blue House
One thing for certain is there’s always something to do in the historic center. Throughout the year and seasons, there there are events and activities that coincide with Mexican holidays. If you visit the historic center on a Saturday and Sunday, you’ll see all kind of street entertainment and music. You could walk around an entire day just doing that. Also don’t forget the many interesting markets in Mexico City.
Since Mexico City is so large and there’s so much to do, it can make you feel pressured to see a lot in a short period of time. That’s understandable. But fight that feeling and make some time to just walk around and take it all in. You won’t be sorry. If you are lucky Mexico City might leave some marks on you too.
Old School Weekend in Mexico City Map
How to use the Google map: in the top left corner of the map is a button with an arrow. If you click on that, it will show you the layers of the map. The first layer is every attraction I list here. There are three layers for Day 1 and Day 2 driving to the pyramids and then a layer for activities in historic center that evening. Simply uncheck whatever layer you don’t want to see. For example, if you only want to see the walking tour for Day 1, then uncheck the base layer and the Day 2 layers. You can also add the map to your Google account by clicking the star next to the title.