After visiting Mexico for over 25 years, my husband and I loved the country so much that in 2005 we bought a house in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Guanajuato, Mexico, where we now live part-time. Since then, every time we’ve been to Mexico, we’ve made an effort to visit new parts of this rich and diverse country, but we’ve always avoided Mexico City, whose size and complexity intimidated us.
Finally, 8 years ago we ventured into “CDMX” (short for Ciudad de Mexico), and now we never tire of this iconic city, discovering new delights with each visit.
Others agree. On a Quora thread I read recently, everyone agreed that Mexico City was one of the most underrated cities in the world. One person wrote: “I have never felt anything like the energy of this city. Free music, performance art, paintings and murals, amazing architecture, delicious food.”
Built on an ancient lake bed and on the site of Tenochtitlán, the ancient capital of the Aztec Empire, Mexico City is packed with history, culture, archaeology, architecture, museums, entertainment and of colonies, or wedges – about 350, each with a unique flavor and style.
Here are my favorite neighborhoods in Mexico City and a few on my list:
1. The settlements of La Condesa and Roma Norte
Mexico City is a great city for hiking, and Barry and I generally stay in the colonias de La Condesa or Roma Norte because we like to walk. These trendy neighborhoods feature wide sidewalks, leafy trees, Art Deco mansions and small plazas with benches and fountains. They are dotted with shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars.
I love strolling the centrally landscaped pedestrian path of Avenida Amsterdam. When I walk through nearby Parque España, a park in La Condesa built in the 1920s, I sometimes wonder, “Am I in Paris?
Within Parque España is the audiorama, a place to listen to relaxing music or sounds. In this park within a park, hidden behind a wall of bamboo, you can read under the treetops while listening to ambient classical music. An inviting trunk filled with books is located at the entrance.
Another older audiorama is located in Mexico City’s largest park, the 1,700-acre Chapultepec Park. While the park itself is world famous and sees up to 40,000 visitors a day, the audiorama, surrounded by trees and rocks, is like a secret garden where you can sit, read, journal or dream on one of its colorful benches.
This colony looks more like a Mexican village than part of a megalopolis.
The area is full of old churches, cobbled lanes and small squares with restaurants, cafes, plenty of bookstores and two markets to browse. The area is famous for its historical museums, including the Casa Azul, where Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was born and died, and houses many of her personal effects and works of art. To visit the museum, book your tickets online in advance. And keep in mind that museums in Mexico are usually closed on Mondays.
Just a few blocks away is the Leon Trotsky House Museum, where the Russian revolutionary lived with his wife, Natalia Sedova, while exiled from the Stalinist Soviet Union. He befriended Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In 1940, Trotsky was assassinated by a Spanish Soviet agent who hit him with an ice axe.
3. Santo Domingo Square
This small, often-overlooked colonial plaza next to the Baroque church of the same name is a few blocks north of Mexico City’s Zócalo, or main square. While the Zócalo is expansive, Plaza Santo Domingo, surrounded by museums, churches, and lesser-known historical sites, has a sense of intimacy and human scale.
The square was once filled with professional scribes who used old manual typewriters to type legal and financial documents for illiterate or indigent clients. The old men are still there, with their gambling den of printers, presses and electric typewriters. We sat on a bench in the square, gazing at the old church and soaking up the feeling of being in a quieter time.
4. Palacio De Bella Artes (Palace of Fine Arts)
This sumptuous marble Art Nouveau building, dedicated to the fine arts, houses the city’s best performance hall and an art museum.
The museum is known for its twice-weekly concerts by the Ballet Folklórico de México and for the murals by Mexican artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo, leaders of the Mexican mural movement in the 1920s. The entrance is free on Sundays.
5. Cerro De La Estrella
You’ve probably heard of the UNESCO-listed Teotihuacan pyramids not far from Mexico City, but you might not realize that there are several other pyramids in the city itself, including in the park. national park of Cerro de la Estrella, one of the oldest archaeological sites in Mexico City. , dating to about 1,000 BCE.
From the museum below, it’s a 15-20 minute walk through eucalyptus, pine and cedar trees to the temple at the top, which the ancients called the “sacred mountain”. After enjoying the incredible views, you can hunt for petroglyphs, explore some of the 100 caves, visit the new cactus and agave garden, and see the flower gardens recently restored to attract bees.
6. Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica
One of Catholicism’s most important pilgrimage sites, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a national shrine built near Tepeyac Hill, once an Aztec place of worship.
The faithful believe that in 1531, Juan Diego, a poor native (Mexican native) had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told him that she wanted a church to be built in her honor on the hill. Juan reported the vision to his bishop, who asked for a sign. When he returned to where he had seen Mary, she reappeared and told him to pick some roses and bring them to the bishop. After opening his tilma (cloak), the flowers fell and the image of a dark-skinned Mary miraculously imprinted itself on the fabric. Juan Diego’s story became a sign that God did not belong only to white Europeans and that he loved the indigenous peoples of the New World.
Juan Diego’s tilda, printed with the image of Mary, is housed in a gilt frame inside a circular basilica. You can see it from a slow moving sidewalk below. Barry and I are not traditional believers, but we found the visit to be deeply moving nonetheless.
7. Mexico City Metro
Always on my list
The metro is not just a convenient means of transport, it is an end in itself, housing many sights beneath the surface of the city.
For example, you can explore the seemingly endless bookstores that line the long corridor between the Pino Suarez and Zócalo metro stations; visit the 650-year-old small pyramid at the Pino Suarez metro station, discovered by construction workers in 1967; see the simulated night sky, complete with constellations and planets, at La Raza Metro Station; and stand on a balcony or stairway at Tacubaya Metro Station to admire colorful murals depicting Aztec gods and ancient cities.
Of the underground sites above, I only saw the night sky at La Raza metro station, so the rest is on my to-do list.
8. El Desierto de Los Leones National Park
Always on my list
El Desierto de Los Leones National Park, a large national park located southwest of the city, is also on my list to explore on our next visit. Despite its name, the park is not a desert and in fact has several waterfalls through the forest of pines, firs and oaks. It also offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, extensive hiking and biking trails, and beautiful gardens in the ruins of an abandoned 7th-century Carmelite convent.
From architecture to art, plazas to parks, and from secular to spiritual, Mexico City is a feast for the senses and the spirit. Don’t let its size put you off. It’s a city made up of easy-to-digest neighborhoods dotted with rincones (corners or niches). I recommend you do what we do: take in all the sensory stimulation it has to offer, then stop and take breaks whenever you need it. Tour this city in bites and enjoy its many eclectic delights at a leisurely pace.
Not only does the city offer an abundance of wonders to explore, but it’s easy to navigate, with its fast, frequent, and incredibly cheap subway system costing just 25 cents a ride. Many tourists feel safer using Uber, but when our destination is too far to walk, Barry and I prefer to avoid heavy traffic on city streets and hop on the subway. In our opinion, this is the easiest and fastest way to get around Mexico City.
We take precautions, of course, by keeping our pockets empty and our bags in front of us, and avoiding rush hour when the trains are crowded. If one train is overloaded, we wait for the next one, which almost always arrives within minutes. The Mexico City Metro has by far the most frequent trains I have ever seen.
If you are a woman, another way to protect yourself is to use the separate car for women and children, located at the end of most trains. Look for markings indicating where these cars will arrive.
For more from Louisa on Mexico, check out: