Mexico Life
The Templo Mayor in Mexico City. The Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

A long weekend in Mexico City: what to see and do

Cheap airfares from the US make the capital an affordable destination for a quick visit

Cheap airfares and a strong dollar have made traveling for the weekend to Mexico City from the United States a real steal.

With fares such as US $200 from Los Angeles, $250 from Chicago and $300 from New York, all direct flights, mean you don’t have to plan a major sojourn to Mexico to eat some delicious tacos and salsa.

Add that to cheap, ubiquitous Uber service, the prevalence of Airbnb and a metropolis that is culturally and culinary on fire, and there aren’t many reason not to head to Mexico City for a long weekend. Your only problem is bound to be — where to start?

You won’t be able to do everything, but a solid three days can give you a taste of the city that will keep you coming back for more. Mexico City can be overwhelming, so don’t try to pack in too much at once. Remember, traveling isn’t just about checklists but also about checking out for a while.

Start out Friday with a roving, self-guided breakfast tour – a sweetbread at Pastelería Ideal, some café con leche at Café Popular, maybe a plate of chilaquiles verdes in the diner section of the Casa de los Azulejos (make sue to see the Orozco mural near the bathrooms).

Interesting dish at Limosneros.
Interesting dish at Limosneros.

You’ll already be downtown (in the centro histórico) so best to start in the heart of the city and see the zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza. This plaza was once home to the city’s most important market, El Parian, and these days hosts art events, festivals and often public protests.

Take a peek at the Templo Mayor to get a feel for the city’s Aztec history, but maybe mix up mural viewing (most visitors just see the National Palace (which is admittedly beautiful) but by heading to the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso or the Education Secretariat buildings you can see Rivera, Orozco and more.

For a slice of the city’s lesser-known history, check out the hidden Justo Sierra synagogue, now a museum, and take time to sit in the park across the street and try a nieve (ice cream) from the roving vendors.

Monica Unikel, a local Jewish historian, also gives Jewish tours of the centro each day at 10:00am; the meeting point is the synagogue. By sunset you should be ready to take the elevator up to the Torre Latinoamericana’s 41st-floor restaurant, have a glass of wine and get a 360-degree lesson on the breadth of the capital.

For dinner head to Limosneros for some classic Mexican tacos and snacks and a lively atmosphere. You can finish off your night there as they have a long list of mezcal, or pop in to the Gallo de Oro cantina for a draft beer and some romantic Mexican love songs.

On Saturday take a cab out to Bazaar Sábado in San Angel if you want to shop for art and antiques, stopping along the way at Las Tlayudas for an incredible Oaxacan-style breakfast. From San Ángel, Coyoacan is just a hop, skip and a jump away, so spend the afternoon wandering its cobblestone streets, making sure to have a churro and chocolate somewhere along the way.

The neighborhood’s main plaza is the center of all the action on the weekends so try Los Danzantes or another one of the restaurants that ring it and listen to the wandering musicians that pass by.

Coming back into town you might want to try and catch a show at Zinco (buy tickets in advance) or the new Jazzatlan Capital in Colonia Roma. If music is not your poison, head to Maison Artemisia for a craft cocktail.

Sunday morning you can get a few tacos de barbacoa early at the corner of Tonalá and León de las Aldamas streets in Colonia Roma. Then join the bikers, walkers and skateboarders in taking over Reforma avenue, walking up to the entrance of Chapultepec park, and heading left at the Monumento a los Niños Héroes.

This will take you on the outside loop of the park (about a 45-minute walk – make sure you see the Fountain of Nezahualcoyotl) and bring you around to the Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum, all worthy of a Sunday visit.

On Sunday afternoon head to Parque Mexico for a walk around Condesa and stop at Glace Bistro for one of their incredible ice cream flavor combinations. Alternatively, visit the Ciudadela market for some souvenir shopping and stop to see the seniors sway to danzón at the park across the street.

On Sunday evening take one of the city’s many taco tours or take it up a notch by doing some fine dining – Maximo Bistro, Sud 777, Pujol, Rosetta, or Azul Historico.

Where to stay? You can get a better feel for the city at small B&Bs or Airbnbs and many of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods have a plethora of both. Try Colonia Condesa for an upscale, bohemian experience, Polanco to be close to the museums and luxury shopping on Presidente Masaryk avenue.

Stay in Colonia Roma for artsy comfort and great food, and San Rafael to feel like a local. Coyoacan will give you small-town ambiance and the centro histórico will put you in the middle of a whirlwind of constant activity.

Cuauhtémoc and Juárez are both phenomenally located, with Juárez having more dramatic architecture and Cuauhtémoc more of an urban vibe. Santa María de Ribera has the gorgeous Moorish gazebo at its center and the geology museum, but Narvarte has thousands of taco stands. It’s always good to be near a Metro stop as the city’s mass transit, despite its (deserved) chaotic reputation, is an excellent way to get around the city.

My advice is that it’s better to focus your first trip on the city itself and skip Puebla or the pyramids or other day trips, but if this might be your only visit ever, the pyramids are a must. They are easy to do on your own with some basic Spanish by taking the bus from the Terminal de Norte, the city’s northern bus terminal.

There are, of course, millions of other things to do, eat, and see in Mexico City, but this quick and dirty itinerary for beginners gives you a sense of the city and its neighborhoods. There are also dozens of tours, cooking classes and other experiences if you prefer company (there are even folks who will be your morning running partner if you want one), but do make time for drink-sipping and lazy strolling – the city will always be here next weekend — you have time.

Lydia Carey is a freelance writer based in Mexico City.

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