Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The ultimate guide to the districts of Mexico City

The first two times I visited Mexico City, it was known as el defe, or the DF. The third time, which was only about one year later, it was completely rebranded. The DF was now known as CDMX, and everything from those fancy letter signs to pink and white taxis were there to remind you. There were no guides to the sprawling mass back and it’s alcadías back then, and much of Mexico City still remains a mystery to visitors today.

The transformation of Distrito Federal, the nearly 200-year nomenclature for Mexico’s brilliant capital, into CDMX was a move made by Mayor Mancera for several reasons. Politically, it gave the city more autonomy from the Federal Government, preventing overreach such as that of Vincente Fox, who removed Marcelo Ebrard, Secretary of Public Security, from office after an incident that resulted in the death of two police officers. Fox did so without properly consulting the city’s head of government, which was AMLO at the time. 

Map of CDMX
The 16 alcaldías that make up the capital. (INEGI)

The new name also served as a marketing move. Bloomberg Associates worked with then-Mayor Mancera and the Tourism Development Fund to showcase Mexico City as one of the world’s leading destinations, using its influence to post the capital at the top of the New York Times’ 52 Places to Visit list in 2016.

Maybe it’s not on top of the Times list today, but it’s still brimming with tourists and positively overflowing with expats, many of whom don’t really know the city outside of five major colonias: Condesa, Roma, Juarez, Polanco, and Centro. 

In some ways, it makes sense. World Population Review ranks la CDMX as the 7th most populous city in the world which spreads out 1,485 square kilometers (Read MND’s article Just how big is Mexico City). It’s a confusing megapolis, to say the least, and it takes real commitment to understand it in all its glory.

With that said, I’ve done my best to break la CDMX down into bite-sized pieces. 16 of them, to be exact. As CDMX is, just as DF was, made up of 16 delegations known as alcadías, each of which has its own government body voted in every three years. Within those alcadías are 1,812 colonias (according to Raúl Fregoso Noble, architect and tour guide for ToursenBici) and within those colonias are countless street vendors, cantinas, churches, juice carts, fancy cafes, fancier restaurants, high rises, low rises, and every possible thing in between.

The CDMX of today is just as full of life, food and color as el DF was before it. (Graciela López Herrera/Cuartoscuro)

Disclaimer: If you plan to visit as many alcadías as possible, please do your due diligence before going! While I’ve included colonias to stay away from, it is not an inclusive list. Areas like Iztapalapa, Xochimilco, Tlalpan, and parts of Cuauhtémoc are not safe and should be avoided, especially at night. We recommended taking a guided tour where possible. 

In addition, the number of colonias per alcadía is often disputed. I included the number most repeated in my research.

Álvaro Obregón

Álvaro Obregón
Álvaro Obregón hosts the upmarket and ultra-modern Santa Fe business district. (Expedia)

Named after a great revolutionary and former president of Mexico, Alcaldía Álvaro Obregón is the third most populated district in Mexico City. It’s a mismatch of oversized, shiny commercial centers and quaint, cobblestone corners. Frida Kalho and Diego Rivera’s house and studio, which is now a museum, is located on the edge of one of these tree-lined streets. The sprawling zone includes colonias San Ángel, Santa Fe (which is also zoned in Alcadía Cuajimalpa de Morelos), and Las Águilas.

How many colonias are in Álvaro Obregón? 258 colonias

What’s the population of Álvaro Obregón? 759,137 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Álvaro Obregón? Shop at the Saturday Bazaar in San Ángel, have authentic sushi at Casa de Cultura Japonesa in Las Águilas, and visit the 16th Century La Parroquia Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.


Azcapotcalco, a relatively quiet area on the northwestern fringe of the capital. (Oasis Hoteles)

In Náhuatl, it means anthills. According to traditional beliefs of the Mexica, Quetzalcóatl noticed a considerable population of ants, and soon realized they were guarding an abundance of corn. Like any smart deity, Quetzalcóatl dressed himself in the guise of an ant to bypass a tough security team, steal the corn, and feed the world’s first humans. Inhabitants are known as chintololos, a once-derogatory name given by the Mexica meaning those with “round backsides”.

How many colonias are in Azcapotzalco? 61 colonias, 15 pueblos, 11 barrios

What’s the population of Azcapotzalco? 432,205 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Azcapotzalco? Go for a walk through Parque Tezozómoc in Zona Metropolitana, visit the Casa de Cultura in Centro Azcapotzalco, have a tipple at 100+ year old cantina El Dux de Venecia

Benito Juárez

Benito Juárez is home to some of the capital’s well-to-do residential districts, such as Del Valle and Napolés, as well as bustling areas like Portales. (Expedia)

The borough was established in 1972 and named after Mexico’s first indigenous president. Within Benito Juárez are familiar colonias such as Napolés, Portales, and Del Valle. The area was once part of Lake Texcoco and the site of numerous islands peppered with settlements and multi-family homes. The lake disappeared at the hands of the conquistadors, but some of the settlements remain, including the Mixcoac archaeological zone. 

How many colonias are in Benito Juárez? 56 colonias

What’s the population of Benito Juárez? 434,153 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Benito Juárez? Visit the imposing Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de los Portales, see the Parroquia de Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Mixcoac, and relax with a snack in Parque Hundido.


Coyoacan square
The cultural history of the capital is writ large in Coyoacán. (Get Your Guide)

Coyoacán has a rich history dating back 25 centuries. Its Nahuatl name means “place of the coyote owners” and is now known largely for figures like Frida Khalo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trosky. Hernán Cortés founded the first town hall here, likely attracted to its fertile land and lush vegetation. It’s colonial feel entices young families and seniors who gather to danzón in the square.

How many colonias are in Coyoacán? 82 colonias, 9 barrios, 4 pueblos

What’s the population of Coyoacán? 614.447 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Coyoacán? Visit the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, see an independent film at Cineteca Nacional, soak in the scene by the coyote fountain at Coyoacán’s Central Plaza. 

Cuajimalpa de Morelos

Cuajimalpa de Morelos
Cuajimalpa, which borders neighboring México state, is seeing rapid development. (Inmuebles24)

The direct translation of the Nahuatl word from which the name derives is “the place where wood is carved”. Founded by the Tepanacs and eventually conquered by the Spanish, documents show that Spanish soldiers took a respite here after the bloody battle known as La Noche Triste (or Victorious Night, depending on who’s talking). 

How many colonias are in Cuajimalpa de Morelos? 39 colonias, 5 pueblos

What’s the population of Cuajimalpa de Morelos? 217,686 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Cuajimalpa de Morelos? Visit the famous Parroquia de San Pedro Apóstol, stop at the ruins of a convent while hiking in Desierto de los Leones National Park, have a fancy meal at La Parque Mexicana in Santa Fe.


Chances are if you’ve been to Mexico City, you’re already familiar with Cuauhtémoc. (Wikimedia)

Herein lies the true heart of the city. Make that, the country. Not because the municipality is known for buzzing expat outposts like Roma and Condesa. Not because it’s named after the rather guapo Mexica leader who led the final resistance against the Spanish in the 14th Century. Cuauhtémoc is the past and present political center of the country, from the reign of Tenochtitlan to the days of Claudia Sheinbaum. To spend a day in Centro Historico wouldn’t scratch the surface of things to discover in the historically rich and populous borough, undoubtedly the city’s most visited.

How many colonias are in Cuauhtémoc? 33 colonias

What’s the population of Cuauhtémoc? 545,884 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Cuauhtémoc? Spend hours in the Museum of Templo Mayor, see a folkloric show at The Fine Arts museum (Bellas Artes), and people watch in Condesa’s Parque Mexico.

Colonias to avoid: La Guerrero, Morelos, Centro (off the tourist circuit)

Gustavo A. Madero

Gustavo A. Madero
One of Mexico City’s lesser famed regions, the alcaldía sees millions of pilgrims attend the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, a major pilgrimage. (Wikimedia)

It wasn’t until 1931 that the capital’s second biggest municipality was named after the Mexican politician known for both his role in the revolution and for saving his brother, President Francisco I. Madero, from assassination. However, the crown jewel of Gustavo A. Madero is the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, which attracts nearly 10 million pilgrims each year.

How many colonias are there in Gustavo A. Madero? 194 colonias

What’s the population of Gustavo A. Madero? 1,173,351 as of 2020

What are three things to see in Gustavo A. Madero? There’s one, and that’s the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Colonias to avoid: San Felipe de Jesús


Bethany Platanella is a travel planner and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. She lives for the dopamine hit that comes directly after booking a plane ticket, exploring local markets, practicing yoga and munching on fresh tortillas. Sign up to receive her Sunday Love Letters to your inbox, peruse her blog, or follow her on Instagram.


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