I was taken aback. Standing on a sun dappled street corner, the smell of hot fries and the faint reggaeton thump of a distant radio hanging in the air, I peered upwards at the street sign, hand painted in curling script and surrounded by decorative blue wall tiles and a wrought iron balcony. The wide pavement to my left led down a cool, green street of colonial buildings housing shops and galleries and taquerias. People in skinny jeans and leather jackets laughed at tiny cafe tables and sipped beer laced with lime, salt and hot sauce. A couple of streets over, office workers in crisp ties and polished shoes queued at hole-in-the-wall eateries for fresh tacos blanketed in onion and cilantro and dripping with hot pork fat. Old men gossiped on benches in the square.
This wasn’t what I had expected. Ok, the pharmacy across the road was blasting Gasolina through a sound system at two in the afternoon and everything on the nearby cafe menu came with a huge stack of tortillas, but other than that I could’ve been in Western Europe. Where was the danger I was told to be wary of? Where were the women selling drugs from the doorways of crumbling, brightly painted houses; the tattered washing lines and snarling dogs, the men in cowboy hats with guns stuffed down the back of their jeans?
As it turns out of course, Mexico City is a bright, breezy capital that effortlessly incorporates colonial architecture and a strong stripe of artistic quirk into clean, modern urban streets. I loved all of it, from the leafy parks to the fantastic food to the fact that there is always music in the air.
We were actually physically in Mexico City for about six days, but as I explained in my last post, I basically slept for the first 24 hours, so that doesn’t count. When I did finally emerge from my jet lagged haze though, this is how I filled five days in Mexico City.
I stayed at the Hostel Centro Historico Regina, which was pretty perfect. The location is ideal, on the corner of a couple of gorgeous little streets filled with hole in the wall eateries, cafes and street art, in the Centro Historico district. The hostel is really laid back, with dorms and private rooms spread over several floors, a decent kitchen and a great restaurant on the ground floor.
Mexico City is perfect for wandering, with its wide streets, colonial architecture, colourful street art and taco-centric snacking options. We explored mostly everywhere on foot, and for those places a little further afield, the metro is efficient and cheap with an easily navigated colour coded system. Here’s a few ideas for where to wander:
- head to Colonia Roma for wide leafy streets, upmarket restaurants and beautiful parks full of intricately tiled fountains
- wander the streets of Centro Historico, visit the tiny churches that are dotted around and spot beautiful and unexpected tiling, stonework and carving on the facades of the old buildings
- walk across the zocalo at the heart of the city, one of the biggest city squares in the world, to the Palacio National, Templo Mayor and La Cathedral Metropolitana around its edges.
- spend an afternoon hunting for the weird and beautiful street art that adorns the side streets of Mexico City. Street Art Chilango have an online map of the best graffiti in the City.
Tacos el pastor
Eating tacos is pretty much the national pastime in Mexico City, and there’s so many kinds to choose from. The best bet is to just find the hole-in-the-wall taqueria that the local people are queuing up for, and get in line. Try as many toppings as you can, but my personal favourite is tacos el pastor – grilled pork and fresh pineapple.
Pizza is a really popular snack in Mexico City – you can get really good cheap pizza by the slice from hole-in-the-wall vendors all over the Centro Historico.
As ever, I’m all about breakfast, and the traditional Mexican offering didn’t disappoint. Huevos rancheros smothered in tomato salsa and refried beans, chilaquiles piled with cheese, stacks of hot floury tortillas to mop it all up and always a side of coffee and fresh fruit.
For something a bit different, head to the fashionable neighbourhood of La Condesa for brunch or lunch at Origenes. They serve up delicious organic breakfasts, vegetarian specials like stuffed crepes and portobello burgers and huge salads from their eclectic salad bar. Walk it off with a stroll through beautiful parque Mexico afterwards.
Ceviche is everywhere in Mexico City, and it’s delicious – salty and lime drenched and unbelievably fresh. I had the most amazing fried tacos with fresh tuna ceviche one night in Centro Historico – I wish I could remember the name of the bar!
Take in the best view in the city
Take the elevator up to the top floor of the Mirador Torre Latin America for stunning 360 degree views out over the whole city, whilst police helicopters swoop around your head.
A walk in the park
Mexico City has some really great parks which are made for lazy afternoon wandering, along with the cool, leafy streets and neighbourhoods that surround them. The most impressive though has to be the Bosque de Chapultepec. At just over 686 hectares it is one of the largest city parks in the Western hemisphere, and it houses a large lake, several museums and the city zoo. We visited on Saturday afternoon, when the whole place takes on a festival atmosphere as families unpack picnic hampers and coolers of beer under the trees, the air fills with barbecue smoke from the many food vendors at the park entrance, and endless market stalls line the paths.
Explore Frida’s Mexico City
I’ve been a huge Frida Kahlo geek since I was about 14, so her Blue House was always at the top of my wish list for Mexico City. Walking through the rooms in which she lived, including her art studio which has been left untouched since the day she died and the urn of her ashes which stands in the bedroom, was something of a pilgrimage for me, and even if you’re not a total geek her story is sure to capture your imagination. Get there early to beat the crowds of confused American and Chinese tourists who aren’t quite sure why they’re there.
After the Blue House we fuelled up on street tacos, and continued our Frida day by heading on to the Palacio de Bellas Artes to see the enormous Diego Riviera murals that span the mezzanine levels. We hopped across the road in the late afternoon to the Sears department store opposite the Palacio – there’s a cafe terrace on the 5th floor that overlooks the beautiful domed roofs.
Mexico City is a great place to pick up beautiful, hand crafted gifts and souvenirs. Hunting for treasures at the Bazar Sabado, a bustling Saturday market in the San Angel neighborhood, is a perfect way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon, and you can find everything there from handcrafted ceramics to colourful paintings. Here’s my suggestions for goods to hunt out during your trip to Mexico City.
- Silver jewellery
- Mole poblano powder
- Hand embroidered textiles – placemats, napkins and rugs
- A molinillo (hand carved wooden whisk used to make hot chocolate)
Have you been to Mexico City? What are your top tips for a perfect day in Mexico’s capital? If I’ve missed anything let me know in the comments!