Travel

A First-Time Visitor's Guide to Mexico City

Learn to hop from quesadilla stand to multicourse pre-Hispanic feast in no time at all
Photo: Daniel Klinckwort & Ana Laframboise
Mexico City Guide - Where to Stay, Visit & Eat

Touching down with Mexico City sprawling out in front of you can be intimidating: An infinite maze of cars, subways, busses and taco stands stretches before you, crawling down to the canals of Xochimilco in the south, plied by brightly colored boats, and up to the pyramids of Teotihuacan to the north, dotted with throngs of schoolchildren and tourists. But take a deep breath of al pastor-scented air: Armed with this guide, you'll be hopping from quesadilla stand to multicourse pre-Hispanic feast in no time at all. 

The Best Areas of Mexico City to Stay In

If you're planning to spend all your evenings exploring Mexico's fine dining scene, base yourself in Polanco, where you'll find Enrique Olvera's famous Pujol, as well as Quintonil, from his protégé, Jorge Vallejo. Stay at the Las Alcobas hotel, and you'll be just a few blocks from each and in the same building as Martha Ortiz's Dulce Patria, famous for its use of color and art to serve modern Mexican food. (Head down the street to Taquería el Turix for a more casual option.)

For most other adventures, the area of Condesa or Roma makes a good base for exploring everything from the best late-night street food stand at the corner of Querétaro and Insurgentes Sur to the see-and-be-seen dining room of Contramar to the mid-priced ode to classic Mexican food that is Fonda Mayora, the second shop from the owner of the legendary Nicos. A room at The Red Tree House will keep you an easy walk to all of these (along a path that circles Parque México), while providing a home-cooked breakfast with churros that rival the city's most famous at El Moro.

Staying in the Centro Histórico will get you closer to the tourist spots—in fact, Chaya B&B's rooftop looks across the Alameda at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where the Ballet Folklórico performs, while Bósforo, the city's best mescal bar is just blocks away. You'll be further from food-rich Roma, but you can still find a six-course taco tasting at Limosneros, an old-school brunch at El Cardenal and excellent tortas at La Texcocana

What to Do in Mexico City

Depending on how long you're in town and how you feel about history, the pyramids at Teotihuacan are worth the effort, as long as you set aside almost a full day. (Get a guide and arrive at the crack of dawn before it gets hot and swarmed with crowds.) Alternatively—or additionally—find pre-Hispanic history at the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park—whose subway stop has a huge roundabout full of great street food stands. 

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The canals of Xochimilco, south of the city, are another most-of-the-day event, but this time with more food: On weekends, you'll jostle afloat the canals with hundreds of other visitors from the city and beyond, while buying food, drinks and live mariachi performances from other boats. Rent a full boat if you have a group or board a lancha colectiva if you're on your own. Stop into Xochimilco's indoor market while there for a bit of barbacoa, or pit-cooked lamb.

If you don't make it to Xochimilco, look for barbacoa stands all over the city on weekends or pop into perennial favorite El Hidalguense, which is open in the Roma Thursday to Sunday.

For more market time, book a tour of the Merced, the city's largest market, which seemingly goes on forever and is best navigated by an expert. Smaller markets, like Medellín (outside of which you'll find a great blue-corn tlacoyo and quesadilla stand) and San Juan, are better for solo wandering. For non-food shopping, hit La Ciudadela for crafts and souvenirs from around the country.

Museum options are endless, but if you want to see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's best works (and pet some hairless dogs), head to the Dolores Olmedo Museum. Stop on the way there at Fonda Margarita, a casual neighborhood place whose scrambled eggs with beans might be the best breakfast in the world. If you need coffee to get moving early enough to beat the crowds (get there before nine), stop in to Buna, a third-wave shop that works directly with farmers. No time for museums? Stop into the beautiful Casa de los Azulejos location of Sanborns department store in the Centro Histórico and admire the murals by José Clemente Orozco. 

But the best thing to do in Mexico City is simply to eat: Stop at any table of tamales, hit up every comal with a woman patting out blue-corn tortillas and drink every fresh juice you see squeezed. You'll leave full, happy and ready to plan your return trip.

Naomi Tomky is an award-winning freelance food and travel writer. Follow her edible adventures on Twitter at @Gastrognome and on Instagram at @the_gastrognome

  • Staying in the Centro Histórico district will keep you close to tourist spots, like the Alameda at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. 

  • Meanwhile, the area of Polanco will keep you close to Enrique Olvera's famous restaurant, Pujol. 

  • And just a few blocks away from Pujol is Quintonil, from Olvera's protégé, Jorge Vallejo. 

  • The city's famous Churrería el Moro is open 24 hours a day, serving freshly fried churros and hot chocolate.

  • Fonda Mayora is a relatively affordable ode the classic Mexican food. 

  • For a classic Mexican brunch, head to El Cardenal. 

  • The pyramids at Teotihuacan are worth the effort—just be sure to get a guide and arrive before the crowds (and midday heat).

  • On weekends you can jostle afloat the canals of Xochimilco with hundreds of other visitors, buying food and drink from other boats. 

  • Find pre-Hispanic history at the National Museum of Anthropology. 

  • Chapultepec Park's subway stop includes a huge roundabout full of great street food stands. 

  • Grab tour guide and explore Mercado la Merced, the city's largest market, which is best navigated with an expert.

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