A first-timer’s guide to Mexico City

Mexico City

Mexico City is vibrant, cultured and utterly inspiring metropolis. Writer Todd Sturm gives us an in-depth guide for first-timers to this historic city.

Mexico City – it’s like no other metropolis north of the Rio Grande.

It’s what every Capital should be … vibrant, cultured, inspiring and above all, a showcase of the country it represents.

This Mexican looking glass is both modern and mysterious.  Ancient Aztec ruins stand proudly alongside colonial cathedrals and just outside the capital, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon stand like great desert ornaments reminding visitors of the great pre-Columbian civilization of Teotihuacan.    

As a young traveler, I was enamored of Mexican culture and stories of its tumultuous past on my first visit in the 1980s. The language, with its punchy staccato delivery, seemed to complement the fresh and zesty Mexican foods. I still adore both.

For the first-time visitor to Mexico City, Zona Rosa is the perfect place to begin your sojourn. An area known for its shopping, bars, clubs, and quaint little taquerias (taco stands), you’ll find hotels in every price range. It has a youthful vibe and offers an LGBT friendly atmosphere too all combining to make it a hotspot for tourists and locals alike. 

Angel de la Independencia

Angel de la Independencia

This bustling neighborhood is where the towering Angel de la Independencia (Angel of Independence) Memorial can be found. This well-known landmark sits in the middle of a busy roundabout on the city’s most famous thoroughfare, the Avenue Paseo de la Reforma. Brightly lit, the statue is a beacon at night making it the perfect reference point.

You’ll find the areas surrounding the Angel Landmark to be safe both during the day and in the evenings with a strong visible presence of police and security guards. 

From well-known chain restaurants, to local eateries, you don’t have to travel far for authentic eats. Just a three-minute walk from the Angel de la Independencia, you’ll find one of the most popular taquerias in Mexico City.

Known for its simple but delicious tacos, Mexican craft beers and tortas, a visit to Taquería El Califa (Avenue Paseo de la Reforma 382) makes for a great introduction to the national cuisine. And don’t worry about the lines, they move quickly. 

A local's view

A local’s view

Avenue Paseo de la Reforma is one of the world’s great thoroughfares, extending through the very heart of Mexico City. With its wide, tree-lined boulevard, it incorporates a mix of old world splendor with a 21st-century buzz.

Heading south-west along Paseo de la Reforma, past the Angel de la Independencia, skyscrapers stand like glittering sentries over Mexico’s natural jewel, the castle crowned Bosque de Chapultepec (Forest of Chapultepec). Perched high on a hill in this beloved urban park sits Chapultepec Castle, where grand gardens and terraces provide stunning views of the encircling park and sprawling city skyline below.

The home of Emperors and Presidents, the magnificent castle is the centerpiece of Chapultepec Park. The only true castle in North America, this citadel is one of Mexico’s must-see landmarks. Elaborate rooms filled with priceless paintings and furnishings tell the story of 19th-century life here. With its Imperial pedigree, it’s a side of Mexico that first-time visitors might not expect.

Chapultepec Castle

Chapultepec Castle

The castle has also been a Hollywood film location. It may look familiar to fans of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet or Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz. For the entry fee of 70 Pesos (about $3.70USD) the castle and gardens are well worth the price.

For anyone preferring not to walk the steep incline to the castle entry, a small train-like transport runs every 15-minutes in each direction for a modest fee. Audio guides in English are available at the entrance and highly recommended.

With over 1,000 acres of recreational space, a whole day can be dedicated to exploring Chapultepec Park. It’s the perfect escape from a city pulsing with activity. Cool down as you walk the quiet paths under the shade of centuries-old trees. For the romantics, rent a two-person paddle boat in the shape of a swan on the man-made lake – a popular activity with love-birds of all ages.

The Chapultepec Zoo, like the park itself, offers free admission. You’ll also find the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Caracol and for some youthful fun, get lost in the House of Mirrors Crystal Maze.

Still in the park, but on the other side of the Paseo de la Reforma, the Museum of Anthropology is one of the world’s most renowned museums. It contains must-see pre-Columbian artifacts and Aztec exhibits of great significance to Mexico and modern civilization as a whole.

On the north-west side of Chapultepec Park, just passed the zoo, the neighborhood of Polanco attracts the hip and trendy with upscale shops, cafes and luxury hotels. Home to many of the city’s elite, Polanco is the place to see and be seen. It’s often referred as the ‘Beverley Hills of Mexico City’. 

Polanco can feel a bit touristy however and many of the upmarket hotels are located here. But with its attractive leafy streets and wide selection of shops and restaurants, it’s definitely worth a visit. One Polanco green space of interest is Parque Lincoln (Lincoln Park). Named after Abraham Lincoln, the space features an impressive statue of the 16th US President as well as gardens and reflecting pools. 

If you’re hungry, the Hyatt Regency in Polanco features a great Japanese restaurant – Yoshimi. Sit at the window that overlooks the Zen terrace garden and devour the best soba noodles, gyoza and agedashi tofu outside of Japan. This is after all an international city, so it’s perfectly ok to stray from the Mexican menu on occasions.

Alameda Central markets

Alameda Central markets

On the opposite side of Chapultapec Park, La Condesa neighborhood attracts a more diverse, bohemian crowd. The center of the neighborhood is Parque México (Mexico Park), an attractive green space that beckons with quiet footpaths, ponds and picnic areas – it’s the perfect place to begin a neighborhood tour.

There’s plenty to admire outside the park too, as the surrounding streets are filled with Art Deco buildings and Heritage-listed landmarks. A great spot to interact with the locals, you’ll find residents of all ages hanging out in cafés with their coffees and laptops.

Rococó Café (Juan de la Barrera, 4) is a great place to satisfy your coffee craving with tempting Mexican sweets and pastries. Located just across the street from Parque Espańa and frequented by the local hipsters, the café’s patio and cosy rooms provide an enjoyable atmosphere to pass the time.

In a city as immense as the Mexican capital, one could spend weeks exploring the various barrios (neighborhoods) and colonias. For first timers, don’t miss the wonders of Centro Histórico and the Zócalo (around a 45-minute walk or 20-min by car from Angel de la Independencia).

Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City

Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City

As the historical district, many of Mexico City’s top cultural attractions can be found here, including the National Palace, the Mexico City Cathedral, the Aztec ruins within Templo Mayor Museum and many other significant museums and landmarks. Just a short walk away from the Zócalo sits the Palacio de Bellas Artes or Palace of Fine Arts. With its grand columns and ornate domed roof, the historic arts building truly resembles a palace. It’s home to the must-see Ballet Folklórico de México, a colorful performance featuring traditional Mexican music and dance.

Take the 45-minute walk down Avenue Paseo de la Reforma from La Condesa or Zona Rosa to Centro Histórico, it’s well worth the effort. There are historic buildings, landmark statues and parks and markets to enjoy along the way. Rest your feet with a stop at Alameda Central, Mexico City’s oldest park, where you can peruse the local markets and sample Mexican street food. There are plenty of restaurants and taquerias around the park too.

Like in any major capital city, you can be as adventurous, or as low key as you like. There’s plenty to occupy travelers’ interests of every type. Mexico City’s uniqueness should be embraced. It’s rare to find a city where the ruins of ancient peoples are integrated into the modern infrastructure, or where colonial buildings hold the treasures of a Republic formed through toil and sacrifice. Mexico City is a wonderful place to explore. 

Safety

Like every big city, common sense safety precautions should be adopted in Mexico City. 

While not a major problem, pickpocketing does occur so be mindful. If you need to walk at night, stick to the major streets. Overall however, central Mexico City, especially the areas within walking distance of Avenue Paseo de la Reforma, are considered safe. There is a police presence on major streets, but if in doubt, talk to your hotel concierge or tour guide for advice on local precautions. 

Getting Around

Mexico City has a vast subway network. The metro system rivals that of most major cities in that it’s reliable with frequent services to points all over the metropolitan area. Naturally, the network gets very busy during rush hour periods but on weekends and off-peak, the metro is a fast, cheap and reliable way to get around the city.

Uber is also a popular and safe way to move about due to its tracking and cashless app but still, it’s always better to travel with a friend and make sure the driver and the car match the name and description on the app. Hotels may also be able to arrange a private car or reputable taxi driver. 

Language

English is widely spoken throughout the city. Tourists are always welcome and often menus can be found in Spanish and English. To make it easy for translation, download Google Translate onto your smart phone or tablet. This works without Wi-Fi, so you always have it available. 

Top Tip

At your hotel, ask reception or the concierge for the hotel’s business card and keep it with you. This helps when you’re lost and need to communicate with a driver. Similarly, take a screenshot on your smart phone of your hotel’s location on Google Maps to show the driver.

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