Mexico City was one of the first places I ever traveled by myself, back in 2008 as a short trip between the end of law school finals and graduation. I stayed in a weird gay bed and breakfast, where I got bed bugs I later determined, but over four days also explored a number of the city’s top attractions: Plaza Mayor, Palacio de las Bellas Artes, the Trotsky, Kahlo, and Rivera museums, the Museum of Anthropology and the observation deck of the Torre Latinoamericana; the areas of San Angel, Coyoacan, Polanco, and Condesa; and a day trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Basilica of Guadalupe. But Mexico City is so massive, and so rich in culture, diverse architecture, and food, you could easily spend a full week and not run out of things to do. So, going back nearly ten years later for 3 days, I wasn’t worried about repeating things, and was glad I’d have a little less pressure to hit up the must-sees. In light of my delayed arrival and bad cold, this turned out for the best, and I had a leisurely 2.5 days exploring parts of the city I largely hadn’t last time (though I ended up skipping nightlife due to my health).
I had planned on doing a lot on day one given my 5:15 scheduled arrival, but ended up not getting out after a power nap at around 1pm. I thought maybe I’d grab street tacos as a quick lunch, but walking from the Holiday Inn to the Cuauhtemoc metro through a pretty chill neighborhood, I passed a small restaurant, La Galeria, that looked fine, had people eating in it, and had a ridiculously cheap menu del dia. It ended up being one of the best meals of the trip, with chicken soup (good for a cold), chicken tostadas (yum) and rice, along with a house tea/juice, for 70 pesos- about $3.50.
Sated, I headed to the metro, which is always a scene in Mexico City. It’s one of the most comprehensive metro systems in the world, and nearly five million riders a day. It’s also dirt cheap- 5 pesos full fare- about a quarter. It’s thus super democratizing, and a super-fast way of getting around the city. I ended up walking and Ubering most of this particular trip, but I consider the Metro a destination of its own.
I took the Metro to the Zocalo, the historic square in the city center, which was hopping on a Friday afternoon. There was some event at the National Palace so paparazzi were snapping photos of people leaving, and the center of the square was getting decorated for Christmas. There were a number of street vendors selling trinkets, as well as “indigenous” people offering dancing and photo ops, as well as offering to do a spiritual cleansing.
I decided to actually pay the admission fee and go into the site of the Templo Mayor – one of the main temples of the pre-Hispanic city of Tenochtitlan — and its accompanying museum, which I guess is cool if you’re into archaeology. I’m not, though, and the site itself doesn’t really wow you. My head cold also made me less interested in reading lots of Spanish plaques, so maybe I was just in a bad space. (You can also see a lot of the site from the street without paying the entry fee.)
More interesting to me was the walk I then took along Avenida Francisco I Madero (often referred to as Madero Street), a pedestrianized shopping street, which was bustling and just full of energy. I popped into the Palacio de Cultura Citibanamex, a gorgeous 18th century Baroque building that had a temporary exhibition of Christmas-related stuff. The building itself was more interesting, but worth a few minutes for free.
The street ends up letting out at the always gorgeous Palacio de las Bellas Artes, a concert hall with awesome murals inside, which I skipped on this visit, and instead proceeded to the relatively new Museum of Memory and Tolerance. Opened in 2010, the museum is an excellent space dedicated to genocide and discrimination around the world. One warning: pay for the audioguide because most of the signage is in Spanish only. There are a number of exhibits, including one for children and families. In the main exhibit, the first half- “Memory”- starts with a graphic, but excellent presentation of the Holocaust, followed by exhibits on genocides around the world, including Armenia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Guatemala, and Darfur. Then there’s the Tolerance section, which discusses discrimination, tolerance, and diversity today, with a focus on Mexico today, including a lot of interactive exhibits. Highly recommended.
After that I took a leisurely stroll past the Alameda Central and down the Paseo de la Reforma back to the Holiday Inn for a nap and workout.
For dinner, Mexico City is a variety of riches. Getting a reservation on short notice isn’t always easy though. I picked poorly for my first night, and went to Testal. I really have no idea why I picked it, since it wasn’t near my hotel, but close to where I was earlier in the day. I was on the early side, 8:30pm, and I was only one of two tables seated in the place so no reservation necessary. Nonetheless, I was given the table right next to the door. I started with a pumpkin soup which was too rich to finish, and followed with a pretty good but not amazing chicken mole. As a finale, I went with a banana spice cake that sounded like it would be amazing but was very dry. To top it off, I had accepted the waiter’s wine recommendation since they hadn’t brought a wine menu, which turned out to be 8 USD a glass – hardly pricey by US terms, but given that my other three courses came to about 25 USD total it was a hefty portion of the tab.
On Saturday, I had originally intended to go to the San Angel market, but decided that concentrating on Polanco would allow for a more leisurely, compact day and potentially allow me to go out at night. I started out with an Uber to Museo Soumaya, a private art museum that moved its main location to a stunning new building in 2011, designed by Fernando Romero and engineered by Frank Gehry and Ove Arup. It kind of looks like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim had a baby, as a parabolic silver metallic behemoth. The contents of the collection are actually less interesting than the building itself, to me, and the design doesn’t make for great exhibition space. But it’s free and worth exploring.
From the museum I walked through the leafy residential area of Polanco. Polanco is also the historically Jewish neighborhood of Mexico City, and there were a lot of Sabbath observers taking their Shabbat walks. It’s really a pleasant place to wander around.
It was nearing lunch time so I found Tacos Turix, a taco place that’s supposed to be one of the best in town, but it was a bit underwhelming. It’s a small counter-type place, with pretty basic tacos, which were tasty but not “oh my god.” They also weren’t super filling, and the street was all dug up with construction, so I went from there to a small café to sit outside and people watch and read with a small salad. It was a sunny day, though cool, and every café in the heart of Polanco was booming.
From the café I walked through Polanco’s Parque Lincoln for a bit, which was decorated for Christmas, before heading back to Reforma and Chapultepec.
Bosque de Chapultepec (“Chapultepec Forest”) is a huge park that covers nearly 1700 acres between Polanco and Condesa, with a number of different attractions: a zoo, the anthropology museum and several other museums, a large lagoon, and the Chapultepec Castle. My main destination was the Chapultepec Castle, a 18th century colonial residence perched on a hill high above the park. To get there, I meandered through the park, which was packed with families, picnicking, buying and selling snacks and souvenirs, and just enjoying the beautiful day.
The Castle itself isn’t much to see, but has some fantastic views of the city in multiple directions. As I was walking around, I heard choral music in the distance, and sure enough found a Christmas concert by a local choir on the rooftop garden, which was a nice little bonus. Check out the video below:
From Chapultepec, it was a pleasant walk up the beautiful wide Paseo de la Reforma back to the Sheraton. In addition to passing by both the Fuente de la Diana Cazadora fountain and the Angel de la Independencia, I walked through a large fair selling poinsettias – so many poinsettias – called nochebuenas in Mexico.
Dinner on night two was a better choice, at MeroToro in Condesa. It was one of the new hip restaurants about five years ago, and is apparently “Baja California” cuisine. I didn’t quite get that from the menu, but went with a “second course” of grilled carrots and eggplant, which was interesting, and a very good duck as a main, which was almost a Mexican/Asian fusion. The restaurant was much busier and felt “hipper,” although at least of a third of the restaurant was Americans.
On Sunday, my final day, my flight didn’t leave until 6pm, so I had time for a pretty full day of stuff. I had really wanted to go to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco in the far southern part of the city– where you can ride boats around the canals of the city. If you’re in a group of two or more, you should just take the metro or Uber and hire one of the boats yourself. For me, that wasn’t really cost-efficient. So, I booked a trip for about $35 that would take me from my hotel to Xochimilco, include the boat ride, drive through the campus of UNAM, then to Coyoacan, before returning to my hotel in time around two.
I was picked up at around 8:45am, but we didn’t actually leave the city after all the stops until 9:35, arriving at Xochimilco at 10:45. Our boat was pretty crowded with the 15 passengers from our trip, plus the young man steering us around, and our tourguide. It wasn’t quite as relaxing as an emptier boat would be (all the boats are the same). But it was still a highlight of the trip.
One of the coolest parts of the boat ride was watching the other boats – lots of which were filled with Mexican families picnicking on a Sunday. Other boats float by selling things, including corn and beer, and all sorts of trinkets. A guy hopped on our boat with a huge case of silver that some of the Costa Rican tourists on my boat loved. Mariachi bands also float by and you can hire them. The whole thing is hard to describe, but do it. Check out the video and pics.
The stop for pictures at the University was not much, and the short taste of Coyoacan was just a tease. Coyoacan really is so beautiful, with cobblestone streets and charming colorful buildings. On our 30-minute stop I did have time to get an extremely delicious torta, though. I recommend spending a half-day there and hitting up the Kahlo House and Trotsky Museum.
By 1:20pm, I was back at the Sheraton to pack up and such.
Mexico City really is amazing, and I didn’t get to do everything I wanted on this short trip. But I really enjoyed what I did get to do while I was there!