“Mexico City? Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty and dangerous.” I hear that every time I tell some unknowing person where I’m going. I’ve traveled solo to Mexico City and have never found either of those issues to be true.
Oh, Mexico City! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….
First, you already know you need to eat the scrumptious Mexican food, drink the tequila, and bargain for both artisan treasure and tacky souvenirs. But Mexico City is so much more than that.
Home to 26 million people, the Mexico City metropolis is one of the largest cities in the world. It was built on the dried out bed of Lake Texcoco and is encircled on three sides by mountains and volcanoes.
The downtown area is bustling with pre-Hispanic history and culture. You can feel the frenetic energy at every corner, from the striking colonial architecture, the vibrant street art, the traditional cantinas, the eclectic markets and the world-class museums. Cosmopolitan folklore, bohemian, or kitschy, this exciting city has it all.
With tourists flocking to Mexico’s two coasts, Mexico City is something of a special secret to those of us who love it. Here’s a list of my must-do’s for people visiting one of my favorite cities.
The Zócalo (“base”) is the popular name for Plaza de la Constitucion, the central and most important square in Mexico City. During Aztec rule, it was the main ceremonial center. It’s one of the largest city squares in the world, and is the heart of Mexico City. This is my favorite place to stroll or chill out in the city. It’s always filled with people milling around the square or the shops across the street. On holidays and festival days, the square plays host to all manner of ritual dancers and performers.
2. Frida Kahlo Museum
Always a fan of Mexican folk art, I became enamored with Frida Kahlo’s incredible story of overcoming horrendous injuries and anguish from a bus crash after surviving my own similar ordeal. Her home, known as Casa Azul (Blue House), is filled with her life – her paintings, furnishings, mementos, jewelry, and an entire wing dedicated to her exquisite clothing. The woman had style and spirit.
The canals and floating gardens of Xochimilco is one of the historic treasures of Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located on an outlying borough of Mexico City, the brightly painted trajineras – wooden pole boats – are Mexico’s version of Venice. The boats are slowly guided through the flower-laden canals and man-made islands, sometimes passing boats with mariachis or vendors selling food, blankets, or tchotchkes. The canals are one of the last vestiges of the extensive network of ancient waterways remaining in the sprawling megalopolis.
4. Palacio de Bellas Artes
The beautiful white marble Art Deco Palacio de Bellas Artes is the cultural focus of Mexico City. It hosts some of the most notable exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and photography. It’s also the site for artistic events in dance, theatre and music. The popular Ballet Folklórico de México, a two-hour extravaganza of costumes, music and dance originating from all over the country is regularly performed here.
Chapultepec, or the “Bosque de Chapultepec” is one of the largest city parks in the Western Hemisphere. It’s the premier ecological space in the sprawling urban Mexico City and is considered to be the first of the city’s “lungs” because of its trees that replenish oxygen to the region. The park area was once a retreat for Aztec rulers. On the grounds is Chapultepec Castle, which was at one time the imperial palace and now hosts the National History Museum. Performances in the park include the traditional papantla flyers – four flamboyantly dressed men who launched into the air tied to a 66 foot-high pole.
6. Templo Mayor
The UNESCO architectural site is part of the Historic Center of Mexico City just to the northeast of the Zocalo. It was one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). The excavations are ongoing, and there is a museum on site.
7. Basílica de Guadalupe
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary – the patron saint of Mexico City – this sanctuary plays an important part in Mexico’s religious past and is the second most-visited Catholic shrine in the world, behind the Vatican in Rome. The history of the shrine is shrouded in mystery and miracles. Since my first visit, I’ve been fascinated by the pilgrimages of the devout, often crawling on their knees across the vast cobbled square to pray to the Virgin, whom they believe can cure any sickness.
8. Red Tree House
This fun, quirky, unique boutique hotel is my favorite place to stay in Mexico City! In fact, I will stay nowhere else. Located on a quiet side street in the trendy Condesa neighborhood, an area filled with parks, cafes, and restaurants, you will not find a friendlier, more helpful staff anywhere in Mexico. Maybe the world. That’s how much I love it! The décor is splendidly colorful and whimsical, yet tastefully applied. I’ve stayed in three different types of rooms. One was a standard, attractively decorated room in the main building; the second was in an expansive contemporary room in their guest house, just across the street.
But it’s the third that captured my heart. It’s actually called “The Treehouse.” It’s compact but perfect for a solo traveler. The penthouse room has double French doors leading on to a sunny private terrace overlooking a stunningly colorful courtyard.
Staying at the Red Tree House is like staying with friends. Guests gather together for breakfast at communal tables, and the B&B hosts a nightly wine hour for guests to relax, mingle, and exchange travel tips before heading out for dinner.
9. Lucha Libre
Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker…. move aside. The Arena México is where it’s at for stunts, drama and every kind of free-style wrestling trick. The participants’ ostentatious personalities are displayed by their equally flamboyant masks, and rippling muscles are openly displayed in their colorful spandex costumes. Masks of every type are sold outside the arena and a few guests (that would be moi) even don them as they cheer at the raucous pop culture spectacle. Like American wresting, the matches are obviously choreographed, but that doesn’t take away from the fun and encourages audience participation.
Teotihuacan (“place where gods were born”) is ancient Mesoamerican city located 30 miles northeast in the Valley of Mexico. Construction of this important archeological site began around 300 BC and it was the largest Pre-Columbian city in the Americas, reaching a total population of 150,000 in its heyday. It’s known for the Aztec practice of human sacrifice.
The Pyramid of the Sun, located on the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, is the third-largest pyramid in the world and offers a stunning view of the Pyramid of the Moon at the summit. I first climbed the Pyramid of the Sun when I was 24 years old….in heels, no less! That’s where I first heard and became familiar with the word “loco” as numerous Spanish speaking climbers passed me, some staring, some pointing me out. I wasn’t totally loco, though; I did take the shoes off to descend the pyramid. Ah, to be young and invincible foolish.
An exciting way to see the pyramids and entire site on a hot air balloon — see link at the bottom of this article.
Mexico’s 4th largest and one of its oldest cities is a two-hour drive from Mexico City. The city square is dominated by a massive two-tower cathedral with a tiled dome roof inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica. The square is surrounded by attractive colonial-era churches, pastel buildings with flowers spilling over second floor balconies, outdoor cafes, and vibrant artisan markets. Puebla’s gastronomy is arguably considered to be the best in Mexico, with dishes like mole poblano, s rich, thick, chili-chocolate flavor sauce, originating here. The city’s relaxed, friendly atmosphere attracts visitors from both Mexico and abroad.
Six miles from Puebla is the tiny town of Cholula, best known for containing Pyramide Tepanapa. The pyramid was built in the second century B.C., and is the world’s largest pyramid by volume – a third larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza. Take a deep breath and climb the seemingly endless stairs to get to the top where you will be rewarded for your efforts with a panoramic view of the entire region. The town also claims to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year.
Note: I visited many of the places above with my favorite tour provider, Viator Tours, and so can you!
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Disclosure: We’ve included a Viator link to tours in Mexico for your convenience. Luggage and Lipstick receives a small portion of the sale at no additional cost to you.